A Thousand Words
The School of Athens
Mary Elizabeth Podles on Christian Art
By the time he finished the Disputa in 1509, Raphael had already begun work on the opposite wall of the papal library. Facing off against the Disputa's Trinitarian theology was its humanist counterpart, Classical philosophy, the fresco generally known as The School of Athens. The young artist's compositional skill has grown. This wall is even more populous and complicated, yet just as coherent a whole as the Disputa, if only we can find the key to reading it.
In a Renaissance painting, it is always a good idea to look at where the perspective lines converge. Since the eye is drawn to that point, a sensible artist makes it the focus of the picture. Here, all the lines of the pavement and the massive architecture meet at the two figures framed under the central arch. They are clearly labeled as Plato and Aristotle. Plato, on the left, is carrying his Timaios, and Aristotle is holding the Ethics. One is a treatise on the cosmic harmonies, and the other an inquiry into the rules of moral behavior; so, on the one hand, we have man's place in the universe, and on the other, how he is to behave there.
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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.
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